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Identity confusion meets the Jesus solution

OPINION | Simon Smart
Eternity #69 May 2016

It’s perfectly understandable, when we find ourselves perched front and centre at the concert of our favourite band, or overlooking the ocean from a three-hatted restaurant or gazing down at the best powder ski run we’ve ever seen, to want to share that with others.

We’re social beings. It’s a natural urge to want to share your “magic moments,” and these days you can do that instantly, in high definition, to hundreds, through social media. It’s a wondrous thing, like a 1970s slide night in fast-forward, only not with Aunty Marg but with friends and acquaintances across the globe.

But there’s no doubt that, taken to extreme, those same urges can become distorted and distorting. With so much of this sharing going on it’s easy to tip over into what Umberto Eco used to call “a craving for visibility”. For many today, unless an experience is shared online it effectively didn’t happen. Carefully crafted images of perfect lives can easily mask the realities of our mixed existences and stoke the nagging sense that somewhere, someone is having a much better time than I am.

“The act of taking pictures is no longer enough to confirm reality and amplify people’s experiences; only sharing can give us validation.”

Scrolling Facebook while sitting on a bus stuck in traffic on a midwinter’s night discovering images of friends picnicking in a Paris park, leaping off cliffs into the azure waters of the Greek Islands or surfing the Maldives doesn’t always produce mudita – real happiness at someone else’s good fortune – but sometimes the opposite: resentment and self-pity.

Moreover, “identity performance” is increasingly a concern as significant portions of our lives drift into online spaces.

A study out of the United States last year by Pew Research Centre found that 92 per cent of 13-17 year olds go online daily, and 24 per cent are online almost constantly. With that comes pressure to establish an identity online that bears little resemblance to our authentic selves. That’s not entirely new. We’ve always represented ourselves in particular ways through dress, speech and action, and the impression that leaves with others can be a long way from the self that a spouse knows on a Friday night in singlet and shorts watching the footy.

But today, whatever gap exists between that self and the one we present to the world through social media is accentuated in unprecedented ways. These are self-conscious, mediated performances. We become stars in our own movies, performance artists in our own show, writes Chris Hedges, in his book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. Hedges quotes literary critic William Deresiewicz on the way the camera has created a culture of celebrity and the computer a culture of connectivity.

“Celebrity and connectivity are both ways of becoming known. This is what the contemporary self wants. It wants to be recognised, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible. If not to millions, on [reality TV], then to the hundreds on Twitter and Facebook. This is the quality that validates us, this is how we become real to ourselves – by being seen by others. The great contemporary terror is anonymity.”

Many writers have commented on the individualised, consumerist, materialist way of life that makes it hard for people to develop a strong sense of identity, purpose and security – a place to belong.

If you create your understanding of who you are based on relationship with others, and ultimately with God – a God who doesn’t forget you(!) – then you have a very different way of understanding your place in the world.

Added to this anxiety is a dependence on the approval of others.

“The act of taking pictures is no longer enough to confirm reality and amplify people’s experiences; only sharing can give us validation,” say Swedish researchers Lindahl and Ohlund in a paper aptly named, Personal Branding through Imagification in Social Media. And for many, not just sharing but getting enough “likes” is everything in terms of feeling validated.

Contrast that with the key biblical notion of being known by God. According to Christianity, our identity is formed primarily by understanding that we are God’s children, made in his image and intimately known by him.

In the Psalms especially, we encounter this notion of human beings being made “a little lower than the angels” and of all the creatures of the universe “crowned with glory and honour” (Psalm 8). In a mind-blowingly large cosmos, we may be mere mortals with days “like a fleeting shadow”, but the creator of the universe nonetheless thinks of us and cares for us (Psalm 144). That intimate knowledge is perhaps nowhere more explicit than Psalm 139 where David recognises a God who “knit me together in my mother’s womb”, who “perceive[s] my thoughts from afar” and knows “when I sit down and when I rise”. This God is with him and sustaining him whether he “goes up to the heavens” or “makes his bed in the depths”. It’s not too much to say that who David is entirely emanates from his dependence on a God who is a constant and unchanging presence. And the implications for identity are profound. My identity is secure, not fluid, based on something outside of myself, and not dependent on verification from the crowd.

Theologian John Swinton demonstrates this concept as it applies to people experiencing dementia. Swinton says that if you attach your identity to individual capacity, then you lose everything once you get dementia. But if you create your understanding of who you are based on relationship with others, and ultimately with God – a God who doesn’t forget you(!) – then you have a very different way of understanding your place in the world. Fundamentally you remain who you are according to who God is, not your own changing and declining capacities.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, awaiting his fate at the hands of the Nazis for his role in the plot to kill Hitler, wrote from prison a hauntingly beautiful poem, “Who am I?”

Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling? …
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine!

The Christian story doesn’t give you a programme to follow, or a recipe for success, or seven ways to improve your wellbeing. It tells you who you are. It’s a firm foundation that can withstand the vicissitudes of life and even a chronic lack of likes on Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat.

Simon Smart is executive director of the Centre for Public Christianity.

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